INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Daniel Kasman
I stopped looking at video footage of September 11, 2001, a long time ago as I find these moving images of expressionistically variable quality and cubist perspective anguished, frightful, and daunting. Two years after the attack, I moved to New York City, and over time I became a part of the city—or it became a part of me—but I always remained a person who joined it after a physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual rift that had been made between its people and in its topography. It is a gap of experience over which I can never really reach in feeling or comprehension. My wife, who was in Lower Manhattan when the two planes hit the Twin Towers, still gets flustered and upset when that day comes up in conversation, as it does surprisingly often in the city, both casually and gravely. When I see this, I know that my New York is not the same city shared by so many of its residents. That such images now are also inextricable from so many of America’s domestic and foreign policies and their heavy and often brutal enforcement makes such footage all the more painful to view.
Many years later, at the Vienna International Film Festival, I approached Reichstag 9/11, a 38- minute found-footage world premiere by American avant-garde grandmaster and proud New Yorker Ken Jacobs, with a deep unease. So much of this kind of footage has been co-opted and re-appropriated for explanation, exploitation, and profit that any return to such material seems tainted by the misuse of others. But Jacobs’ brilliant film is dedicated to the antithesis of these things. Its title fulsome with the caustic anger and direct politics that so vividly differentiates the sensibility of much of Jacobs’ work from American contemporary experimental cinema’s trend towards exercise or contemplation, the video immediately connects the power of the images of New York on September 11 with the infamous fire in the German capital building that the Nazis used in 1933 as a pretext to consolidate power. Rather than only imply, as it could, that the World Trade Center attacks were a conspiracy of the US government to expand and exploit its overseas imperial project and exercise greater control over the surveillance of its populace, the title of Jacobs’ film suggests the power that video footage itself can have on a culture, a population, and thereby a government. Declaratively, Reichstag 9/11 explores the images that have moved a nation and changed the world.
Befitting the birth of our new era, these images, products both of their time and of their source—overwhelmingly from regular people with consumer-grade cameras—are digital. In a sense, Reichstag 9/11 is a period film, made as it is of video footage found on the internet of the World Trade Center on fire, as well as ground-level footage of Financial District streets and people in various stages of witnessing, filming, and fleeing. Jacobs intervenes with this footage in a number of overlapping ways. Most radically apparent is that he either forces profound digital artifacting, so that whole swathes of the image appear as disrupted or distorted blocks of pixels; he “paints” these videos to pull out such convulsing graphical errors; or he targets footage that in its original amateur quality, or in how it was shared or downloaded online, acquired these profoundly flawed, impure, highly beautiful, and self-reflexive images. (The filmmaker is characteristically wry and cagey about his process.) He then takes these corrupted moving images and animates them by frequently pausing his footage from various clips after a few frames or seconds and applying a variation on his beloved Pulfrich effect, dubbed the Eternalism, which he has used for nearly two decades. This technique alternates and partially overlaps two contiguous frames of movement, each coloured differently, with a nearly imperceptible black frame break in the middle, which tricks your eyes and brain into thinking it is seeing continually unfurling, evolving motion, where in fact it is seeing two static images rapidly juxtaposed.
In the past, Jacobs has mostly applied this digital technique to photographic sources. In a film like Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World (2006), which uses an early-20th-century Edison short as its material, this not only feels like an uncanny sense of footage forever-moving-but-never-changing—Jacobs cleverly proving he can redefine a “movie” as merely the play of two frames—but it also has the remarkable optical capacity to trick your eyes into thinking it’s seeing a quasi-3D image of engorging, vertiginous spatial depth, all without 3D glasses. In such recent, seminal films as Capitalism: Child Labor (2006) and Capitalism: Slavery (2007), Jacobs has used this technique on stereoptical images exemplifying blights in American history—American capitalism’s foundational and flagrant use and exploitation of children and slaves—taking still images originally requiring a special viewing device and uniting them cinematically into animated, indignant political histories. Ultimately, Jacobs’ minutely attentive revisitation of different parts of old images, which goes back to his canonical masterpiece Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969) and increases dramatically in curiosity, exploration, and productivity with his prodigious application of digital tools to this unique methodology, suggests something truly profound: that inside each image is a potentially inexhaustible amount of detail, depth, and expressivity that can be discovered, mined, animated, and presented to an audience. Jacobs in fact doesn’t even need a photograph to reach this amazing epiphany: the filmmaker’s joyous, bountifully alive projection-performances, dubbed The Nervous Magic Lantern, goes back to pre-cinema using merely a light, a revolving shutter, a screen, and various unidentified objects to project images of beguiling surprise, volume, and variety.
It is this sense of proliferation and infinitude that turns into horror in Reichstag 9/11. Some of the images, paused and played with, colours fluctuating, pixels damaged, and the image slurred, flame and smoulder in even greater fireballs, smoke clouds, and rains of debris, giving the paradoxical sense of ever-cascading damage and an unending moment of catastrophe. Other sequences, whether of the buildings’ recognizable striped façades, or a whirligig camera’s snatched frames of surrounding sky, other buildings, or bystanders, turn into nearly completely abstract compositions of degraded colours and blasted artifacts, the scene painted in giant, stroboscopic pixels. We see the buildings altered, somewhat, and then barely recognizable; then the pixels of the towers swarm, congeal, disperse, and re-form as New Yorkers on the ground tumble around the streets, until shapes, blocks, and artifacts suggesting fast-moving vehicles, seemingly from another clip of footage, burst into and overwrite the present moment. Watching such sequences, we’re on the cusp of seeing what is happening, but it’s always outside of comprehension: the origins unknown, the present existence in chaos, and the results in progress.
Whereas Jacobs’ work in this manner with photographic source material often results in the heightened hyper-realism of illusionary 3D, the found-footage video of Reichstag 9/11 attains even greater flatness and artifice thus processed. By exploring catastrophe records, Jacobs renders them stranger, more false, composed, and uncanny. At the same time, the tenor of the exploration—the fierce iridescence, the startling alternating frames, the impinged video quality—is absolutely of violence, disorientation, fragmented viewpoints, and the frantic capture of panicking vision, paused in abject horror and then flung to the next anxious moment. The records seem eroded by what they ended up being used for, inspiration for (inter)national catastrophe. Records of a disaster we look back on—and it is shocking for this to be possible—with ever more nightmarish shades.
It is a film in awe, and completely distrustful, of what has been filmed. The pixels that make up the familiar footage of the disaster are wrenched and wretchedly rendered and exploded across the screen, like so much dust of the buildings that would later infect and even kill many New Yorkers. Only these pixels, which Jacobs so vividly exposes, have proliferated in different ways, changing not only how we see and think about reported (and repeated) image violence, but infecting, as it were, the American culture at large to instigate what seems a permanent state of fear, anxiety, and vulnerability. In Reichstag 9/11, we literally see the particles that have gone on to infiltrate and infect the minds of so many. It is a tremendous spectacle. Jacobs upends the truism that so much footage from 9/11 was reminiscent, in concept and violent scope, of a Hollywood blockbuster by making a movie that is anti-Hollywood in politics, form, subject, length, and distribution. Yet it is absolutely stunning, a spectacle not standing in for reality, as a Hollywood film would presume to do and catastrophe footage is understood to be, but a spectacle of retrospective and ongoing anger and astonishment. It is an aggravated and incandescently coloured transformation of those genres into terrifying abstraction on an epic, indeed national, scale. Jacobs has torn away our cultural familiarity with September 11; these ferocious images reveal their dismaying but awesome power to move nations.
Cinema Scope: In 2002, you made a film response to the events on September 11, including footage of the event shot by your daughter Nisi, titled Circling Zero: We See Absence and subtitled “Part One.” Have you considered resuming the series?
Ken Jacobs: I made digital recordings for a Part Two, but had to drop the project after the invasion of Iraq made it clear that 9/11 was the work (along with the Saudis) of our own government, Bush-Cheney’s “new Pearl Harbor.”
Scope: Ever since September 11, video footage of the attack has proliferated and been viewed constantly. When and why did you decide to return to footage from the disaster and make something new?
Jacobs: We live a few blocks from the site. A constant flow of people ask us for directions. It never leaves our minds and we cannot put aside the evidence that it was a Saudi-Bush manoeuvre to instill a New American Century. The pixel breakdown of the images invited my intercession.
Scope: How did you decide upon these specific clips of footage among all the many video records and perspectives that exist online?
Jacobs: It was the first thing that came to hand. Eventually, even more astonishing video became evident, but I stayed with what I began with.
Scope: Was the footage something you found ages ago and saved, or were you searching for the footage?
Jacobs: Reichstag 9/11 came about soon after I saw there was all this eyewitness documentation on the web, but couldn’t look through it and never have, wouldn’t permit myself to and yet felt obliged to do something with it. Amongst the trove was a commercial compilation, convenient, and I just went at it, quickly selecting images for transformation and never bothering with the sound (music and talk-over). It went fast. A problem with Reichstag 9/11 is that it’s beautiful, enthralling, and feeds our thrill-seeking. It’s as fucked up as we are.
Scope: You told me that you were teaching in upstate New York on September 11. How did you relate to the news footage from that day?
Jacobs: We moved to a room with a TV and watched the event. Both our grown kids happened to be in our place that morning and we were sick with fear for them.
Scope: Were you able to remain in your Tribeca apartment that fall?
Jacobs: We were allowed back in the loft after six weeks. We visited before that to feed our cats, sometimes in the company of police.
Scope: Before approaching this project, how did you relate to such amateur records of the attack?
Jacobs: It’s an amazing age when almost everyone carries a camera. I’m grateful.
Scope: Was it difficult to spend so much time watching such footage?
Jacobs: The terrible thing is that it’s beautiful. Looming clouds of debris, people’s patterns of escape. We’re a whacked-out people to be eating this stuff up. I did question leaving the person falling and falling to his death but couldn’t deny it; after all, the hits were designed to murder. Whereas the original design of the buildings was only to keep their inhabitants miserable while reflecting glory on Rockefeller. They were unneeded and difficult to keep tenanted. City and state offices were emptied while obliged to keep paying rents to fill them. They were put up to make us feel small, the inception of high-rise New York, a developing scam. They replaced seedy Radio Row, which I liked.
Scope: Fifteen years after, is it possible for you to view such footage “naïvely,” as it were, or can it no longer be separated from domestic and foreign policies of the American government carried out afterwards?
Jacobs: What 15 years? For me it just happened. I realized it was a Reichstag event soon after news of Bush ignoring threats became known. Isn’t it marvellous how the bastards can get away with it? Never mentioned except by the “nut” minority? Only recently did I learn there’s a Reichstag 9/11 site on the web, by that name, so anyone may choose to confront the facts. Yes, the government assured people cleaning the site that they were safe…
Scope: Do you see your film as a revision to the image culture that surrounds 9/11?
Jacobs: We protect ourselves and know nothing of this image culture. I don’t absorb horror well. Movie thrills are not for either Flo or myself. There’s a part of us that’s never understood movies and make-believe; we believe. On the other hand, I do think Hieronymus Bosch got things right. Bosch releases a mordant sense of humour, everything goes; we’re ridiculous in our pretensions to superiority over other beasts.
Scope: At the Viennale, your new film was paired with an old one: the 1955 documentary Orchard Street, which in 2014 you expanded with footage from the original shoot and restored. What was it like so closely revisiting an older New York, and “younger” filmmaking from our current vantage?
Jacobs: Have I changed? Twenty-four to 83? I’ll look into that. New York of course has. Now I dote on decay. The process of an identity giving way to others more intrinsic as the presentable identity gives way to time. It’s the presence of evernew that gives me the creeps, creatures/creations concocted but not born. My heart goes out to ramshackle, as whose wouldn’t. I never step out without my Fuji W3, but how does one photograph evernew without it looking like a slick advertisement?
Scope: The film alternates regularly between manipulated views of the flaming towers themselves and street-level reactions and shrouded anecdotes. How did you approach structuring your use of the video footage?
Jacobs: No peanuts went into the making of this movie and hardly any thought beyond what happened to come my way next. Never thought it through. Much of what I do is via uncritical impulse.
Scope: Even though the film is not 3D, is it a variation of the Pulfrich effect that we are repeatedly seeing applied to your source material?
Jacobs: Not the Pulfrich effect directly but my derivation from it, the Eternalism. Most of my videos are built around it, and when Flo and I were working with two stop-motion projectors to create The Nervous System performances, it was variation on the Eternalism that we were aiming for. Pulfrich demonstrated that a dark filter before one eye would not only diminish light passing through it but, more importantly, retard the light that did pass. For us this meant the seeing of two frames at the same time, the one there and, simultaneously, the frame that had been there. If the same scene was being pictured and if there had been movement—displacement—between exposures, here was a basis for stereo imagery, each eye getting the equivalent of a different perspective. But we were alternately feeding both eyes both images and discovered this created a strange 3D that had to be investigated, and not only that: because both eyes were getting both images in repetitive glimpses, the depth created such as it was could be seen by either eye, meaning that one eye could for the first time see depth. And that’s what made The Nervous System a household name! Why Popeye and Pappy greet me so warmly when we meet. Patented for video in the year 2000, visit vimeo.com/kenjacobs to see for yourself.
Scope: This effect is one you’ve explored in many other films, by creating a dynamic sense of evolving motion through the alternation of two frames of footage. Especially for the sequences involving the buildings on fire, this created a sense of a perpetual present: a fire that never dies. How do you see this simultaneous freezing-of and extension-of film time as applied to this footage?
Jacobs: This event is no passing event. It endures, fixed in our history.
Scope: The degree of artifacting and pixilation you bring out from the footage is tremendous. Is much of this video corruption native to the original materials?
Jacobs: It’s the result of downloading. And one stage of chaos led to another.
Scope: You amplified the aberrations that already existed in the raw material?
Scope: What do you find beautiful or invigorating or strange or wonderful about the “corruption” of digital images?
Jacobs: Their painterly energy, apparent otherness—like paint—from what’s depicted with them.
Scope: Could you walk me through how you work with this footage, your process of evaluation and what kind of tools you use to paint, as it were, with your source?
Jacobs: Mmm. I’m an old guy. I do prefer investigating the territory alone. I will soon enough relinquish the territory to my successors. My biggest tool is nerve. I have a lot of nerve.
Scope: Does your method of manipulation change when its material is something representational, as in Reichstag 9/11, rather than something abstract, as in Seeking the Monkey King (2011)?
Jacobs: Same method. Monkey pictures artificial, abstract images, but the texts are intrusions of my thinking. However, what I think of (when awake nights) is 9/11 and all that it implies. The editing formula for creating Eternalisms is the same. It makes clear, the third-dimensional reality of these horrific events at the same time that impossible, ongoing repetition shows them as clearly artifice. That’s something to deal with.
Scope: The degree of abstraction brought out of these original sources at once obscures their photographic reality at the same time as it accentuates, expressionistically, the terrible feeling, energy, and horror of that reality. How did you balance how abstractly you wanted to transform your footage?
Jacobs: Nice of you to think I’m so rational. My models are the early Marx Brothers. I blunder on, sometimes erase, sometimes do things differently.
Scope: For years, footage of the attacks was often characterized as being evocative of Hollywood blockbuster imagery. Your film is radically anti-Hollywood in nearly all ways and yet is highly spectacular. Do you see your intervention as pursuing a different kind of “spectacle?”
Jacobs: Yes. A monstrous “spectacle” happened in real life, tearing apart real lives. But no Bush or Cheney was hurt in these demonstrations, only peripheral lives, an understandable sacrifice in helping America achieve its destiny as pot-of-gold for Halliburton.
Scope: When talking about Seeking the Monkey King’s soundtrack, you’ve mentioned that you wanted J.G. Thirlwell’s score to conjure the sound of blockbusters. Reichstag 9/11, by contrast, is completely silent. What do you hear when you watch this film?
Jacobs: Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. I see the beginning of absence and begin to hear nothing. Meanwhile, I’m ashamed at my own appetite for sensation and have to wonder about “beauty” generally. Of course it’s not me alone but our profound and necessary need for sensation, every one of us. Don’t understand why people don’t revile The Creator generally to have placed us in this predicament. The chumps needed to create the Devil, just so they could keep supplicating God the Good. We’re about to learn if more than half the electorate is voting for Trump, confused with God.
Scope: You’ve been a staunch advocate for 3D cinema in many diverse forms, yet Reichstag 9/11 is dramatically flattened by its low-res imagery and digital artifacting. How do you relate to the depth of the imagery you used and the final result after your work on it?
Jacobs: Of course I dig it or I wouldn’t show it. The coarseness of the image is one with its bluntness. Is there a nice way to scream “We’ve been fucked!”? Low res? Are we back to objecting to paint-strokes showing?
Scope: Seeing Reichstag 9/11 in Vienna, I wondered if it’s more important for you that Americans or non-Americans see this film.
Jacobs: We’re all in this together now. Isn’t local identity as Americans or Austrians rather quaint now? Seeing the same movies, wearing the same clothes, etc. Dining on Big Macs? Trump’s destiny is to bring it all down—no patchwork of survivors for him.
Scope: While you’ve connected George W. Bush with the Monkey King in 2011, Trump in 2016 seems already of a new epoch of image politics (and the politics of the image). So I must ask: will Trump’s screen-thin image ever fall victim to your withering digital investigations? How can one combat his power, co-opting, and coercion of the image?
Jacobs: I’m beat. I can’t say, his image repels me so much. I take a lot of 3D pictures walking from Chambers Street to beloved Chinatown, a ten-minute transition to a wealth of ramshackle. And Nisi makes many of the images into Eternalisms. When in the path of an onslaught and with nowhere to jump to, is it right to give up that last delectation, say a faded coat of paint on some old wall with a thrust into space by a rusty metal fire escape?